The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

The Necromancy, Artistry and Beauty of Traditional Paper Charts

—October 14, 2016

I have long been enamoured of nautical charts, by far my favorite navigational tool. And sure, I enjoy the convenience of navigating by GPS chart plotter, but there is no art or romance in it. A chart plotter is all push button and cursor with any resultant specific details available in whatever scale or format you desire. In this age of computerized instant gratification, the paper chart takes a bit of work, but you get to look and touch an artistic canvas, discern subtle details by your own eyes, and use the chart as a backdrop to mentally visualize the transit from point A to B.    

Give me a paper chart, compass, parallel rules, close approximation of the starting point and average speed, and I canChester Harbour guide a boat via dead reckoning (DR) to just about any point on a chart’s navigable waters, even in the face of a thick blanket of fog or shroud of night. To those unfamiliar with the art of traditional navigation methods it can seem like necromancy, and perhaps to some extent it is.

My friends were certainly amazed the first time I navigated a complete voyage by dead reckoning, taking them almost 40 nautical miles through thick fog via an unseen narrow channel and then over open ocean to meet up with another narrow channel at voyage’s end. It was wondrous enough that I got us to our destination without ever seeing land except at departure and arrival, but I was also able to successfully gain visual sight of all five sea buoys on the route. Mind you, I must confess to being lucky, or under Poseidon’s watch, because that navigation was just too perfect, and I’ve yet to make another DR voyage that perfectly on course.

Charts are magical. GPS chart plotters are just plastic viewing screens with a bunch of interior computer chips and a need for electricity. Charts might get inconveniently wet (or worse, blown overboard should you bring one topsides), but chart plotters can just quit working. My nine-year-old Raymarine chart plotter gave up the ghost the other day. A bit annoying, but no big deal cause I’ve always got the paper charts in reserve. I’m not so sure that such an event would be “no big deal” with the rest of the world’s recreational boating public.

My grandfather and stepfather, both of whom contributed to the evolution of my nautical skills, used to joke about the pandemonium on the water that would ensue should a GPS satellite or two go on the blink. That was back during the emergence of GPS chart plotters when most mariners—professional and recreational—still learned traditional navigation. Now it seems that few up-and-coming recreational mariners even bother with the traditional methods. Woe be unto them should a satellite, or even just their individual ship-borne GPS unit, give out on a cold, dark, stormy night.   

Cape Cod to Nova Scotia ChartBut enough of any such “doom and gloom” scenarios, as I was vying to speak of the “beauty” and “artistry” of nautical paper charts. And the subject matter of “nautical paper charts” only came to me earlier this week, when I opened a box containing a treasure trove of nautical charts.

They were my above-mentioned step-father’s charts—collected, I assume, over the past 60 years or so, and representing all of his voyages, both those actually travelled and those only dreamt of.

The former, covering the seas bounding Nova Scotia, Maine, Massachusetts, Belize, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Turkey, are obvious. I long heard his sea tales, and his handwriting lightly adorns these charts, giving me visual representation of his thought process as he navigated from each Point A to Point B.

The latter—Newfoundland, West Indies, Venezuela, Brazil, and quite a few places I have yet to identify—are notable for their lack of written adornment.

I can only assume that they are places he longed to navigate and explore. I see this art and want to navigate and explore these places, too. 

—Originally published by Slidemoor.

Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

—August 14, 2016

I discovered the strangest dock I have ever encountered several decades ago just outside of Greenville, North Carolina in a small pond deep in the woods near my step-grandmother’s farm. And when I say “small” I’m talking quarter acre at most. So small that you could traverse its length in a canoe with a couple of strokes of the paddle. So small that the dock, which only extended about seven feet over the water, seemed like it ended right in the middle of the pond. And ended to what purpose would be the question, as the pond was too small for boating and one could easily fish every part of it by casting from any one spot on the shore—that is, if that dock hadn’t been in the way.

The dock essentially proved to be a complete nuisance to fishing the pond, as its apparent age and dilapidation precluded any thought of walking out on it to drop a line. Thus, it was in the way, and its possible role as serving as cover for a lunker bass or two also proved worthless, as the only bites I got that afternoon were from the herds of deerflies that assaulted me in successive, increasing waves. Given the difficulty of reaching the pond, apparent lack of any fish, and abundance of hungry deerflies I never went back.

While I did not have a term for such structures back then, I now call docks that serve no readily apparent purpose “ghost docks.” And the only purpose I have been able to come up with for that particular dock is that perhaps it had been a good fishing hole at one time, but whoever fished it had been especially afraid of snakes. That notion only came to me in hindsight when I gained a healthy respect for snakes after coming face to face with a mating pair while fishing a different pond…but that’s another story. 

In my adopted home up here in Nova Scotia I have encountered quite a few ghost docks over the years. With more than 4,600 miles of coastline and at least 3,800 coastal islands we have a lot of docks. Generally, wherever one sees a dock there is a nearby or adjacent house, cottage, boathouse, seafood processing facility, or some other variety of human construction. But sometimes there is just simply a dock.

These ghost docks are usually found on remote islands or out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach sections of the shore, and cause seafarers such as myself to wonder, what is the purpose of that dock? Why is that dock there when it seems to serve no other purpose than to provide easy access to a deserted island or barren stretch of rocky seashore?

These are rhetorical questions because I do not know the answers, but I always speculate as to the purpose. I generally assume that newer looking docks built in especially picturesque locations have been built by landowners who dream of eventually building a cottage at the site. I tend to believe that older looking ghost docks were built by coastal fishermen as perhaps a waypoint at which to take a break or clean fish between home port and the fishing grounds. And the really ancient looking structures in the remotest waters call to mind the rum-running that significantly bolstered the local fishing industry’s earnings in the 1920s and ‘30s.

A ghost dock at one of my favorite anchorages along the coast morphed over the years from “spirit” to “working.” The anchorage is located in a gut between Taylor and Moore’s Islands roughly 20 nautical miles northeast of my home waters, a perfect distance for an overnight stay when cruising for a two-day voyage, or as a first-night stop for an extended voyage up to Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The gut provides excellent protection from wind and waves, and despite being only about four miles from the tourist-trap destination of Peggy’s Cove, feels “ends-of-the-earth” remote—the granite cliffs, boulders, spruce strands, wildflower fields and scrub brush seemingly showing little change from 2,000 years ago. We generally see few other boats when there, and have never had to share the anchorage overnight with other boats, excepting friends cruising in company on their own boat. And while Taylor Island has become quite popular with rock climbers in recent years, their occasional presence is unobtrusive and they are hardly noticed during our walks around the island. 

The ghost dock was present on my first “discovery” of the anchorage back in 2003. It was almost more platform than dock, and rather unremarkable other than the fact that it was not connected to anything else related to man. It was also located on the much smaller and much less interesting Moore’s Island. I assumed that it was just a place for local fishermen to rest or wait out a storm, though we never saw anyone tie up to it.

Nothing changed about the dock until we arrived five years ago to find that it had been rebuilt or refurbished, and seemed more like a dock than a platform on stilts in the water. But again, I did not give much thought to it.

The next year found the dock connected to a staircase ascending the granite slabs some 100 feet to the island’s primary plateau. Ah, now this was interesting, and so, for the first time ever we landed on Moore’s Island. The stairs were well built and sturdy, and someone had been willing to spend some serious coin to ease access to the plateau, which, while having nice views over Dover Harbor, had nothing over the views from the ridges and plateaus of Taylor Island. It seemed like a nice picnic spot, but other than that we hardly gave the dock and stairs another thought after returning to our boat.

Until the next year, when we saw that the stairs ascended now to a small house. While I was slightly put off by the thought of a house looming over one of our favorite anchorages, its placement and design made it seem inconspicuous. As I had an architect friend on board with me, we had to do some snooping, and he was especially impressed by the quality of the home’s design, build and materials, all of which he deemed of “European” style and exceptionally expensive.

I’ve been back five times since it was built, and the home does not mar our enjoyment of the anchorage. It’s owners are always absent and the house seems to be receding into the landscape.

There’s a last bit of information I can convey regarding the evolution of this particular ghost dock: A year ago I started doing movie reviews of films shot on location in Nova Scotia. While1920x1920 watching the movie “The Weight of Water” I was struck by one particular scene featuring Sean Penn cavorting with a bikini-clad Elizabeth Hurley on a 50-foot sailboat anchored in a gut between two ruggedly beautiful islands. While Ms. Hurley in a bikini was definitely worth the re-watch, during that second viewing I realized that the action was taking place at my Taylor Island anchorage. Sure enough, a little research proved the film crew spent quite a bit of time there, and I now believe that the original ghost dock I found when I first went there had been built by the film crew, perhaps as a camera platform and/or for use by a supply boat.

I suppose that I will next have to figure out the mystery of the absent homeowners…but then again, I’ll be just as happy if I never meet them there.

—Published August 4th by

Complaining About the Weather While Awaiting the Season’s Start

Complaining About the Weather While Awaiting the Season’s Start

—June 7, 2016

It has been a strange and slow-starting season. Already getting deep into June and I’ve only sailed once, one quick sail to bring the boat around from the marina to my dock.

Unheard of…. Well, at least in the fourteen years I’ve been living up here on the coast of Canada’s “Ocean Playground.” Normally I would have been out on the water at least a half-dozen times by now, and some years it was more than a dozen.

Heck, I haven’t even done my annual spring every-inch clean of the cabin’s interior, oiled the teak, washed the cushions or stowed the two truckloads of gear. In short, the boat might as well be up on the hard.

I could blame it on my especially heavy workload, but that would be a stretch as I’ve never let work keep me from slipping out on a fine day for an afternoon’s sail. No, it’s been the elusiveness of any such fine days hitting the shoreline. I think there have been a grand total of two this spring.

One was the day I brought my boat over from the marina, a rather quick and hurried journey due to having to spend most of that day trying to jury rig a fix for the floating dock in the hopes of getting one more season out of it. A jury rig that is now looking doubtful and will undoubtedly require more precious time away from sailing.

The other perfect day was devoted to the yard. Neglected all season due to work and weather—the grass was reaching near knee high. Sailing or yard work? It was a tough call, and yard work won out as the grounds have never looked so unsightly. Good timing as we’ve had nothing but rain and thick fog since, and the yard is already due another mowing.

Rain, fog and high winds. Oh, and cold. Very cold. So cold that the heating oil truck is still making the rounds. So cold that freshly planted annuals have been taken by frost. So cold that some of the hardy sailors who braved the foul weather of the first of the season’s Thursday evening racing series said it was the coldest inshore race they’d ever sailed. It was warmer here on Christmas day, a record-breaker by at least two dozen degrees, and a day truly suggestive of climate change.

But we should be used to the rain, fog and cold temperatures. Nova Scotia is known for them. Nevertheless, Nova Scotia is also known for the expression, “If you don’t like the weather wait five minutes,” because the weather generally changes so frequently. And yes, I’ve heard the expression claimed by New Englanders, too, but the weather here truly changes quite frequently at an instant.

Just not lately….

Seven-day forecast calls for six days of clouds, rain and showers with temperatures warming up a bit with a range between the mid-40s to one day in the low-60s; and one potentially sunny day with a possible high nearing 70 degrees.

Anyhow, don’t listen to me. My wife would tell you that I bitch about the weather every season and always claim that I don’t get enough sailing time.

I’ll admit to complaining about the weather too much, but truly do not get enough sailing time. I mean, there’s no such thing as too much sailing…that is, unless it’s blowing a prolonged cold rainy gale right on the nose. 

—This was supposed to have been published by, but guess their southern readers didn’t want to hear about cold-weather boating. Oh, and am pleased to report that the weather has now turned beautiful and finally had a great day of sailing.

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

Hitting the Water With Old-School Virtual Reality

—April 14, 2016

It snowed over the weekend. Only about four inches, but enough to put a damper on the notion that we might have an early spring this year. The forecast for the coming week does not look promising as far as the boatyard doing much launching this week. Not that it really matters given that it’s the unholy tax filing month, and with my dual American-Canadian status I get double filing detail. Sigh….

Nevertheless, I’m itching to get on the water, anxious to feel the wind across my cheek as I hoist up the sails for the first time of the season. Alas, with no boat in the water, the inclement weather, work and taxes it looks like I will not be on the water until May. Oh well, guess I will need to scratch my sailing itch with a bit of virtual reality.

Yep, nothing like a good nautical book to tide me over while I contend with the symptoms of sailing withdrawal. I am not aware of any recent tales of nautical brilliance, but I love my selection of tried and true reads. And if you love a good nautical book as much as me, then I suggest you peruse my library and try out any one of these fantastic reads:

Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World’s Most Dangerous Waters

Derek Lundy

This book tried to keep me up all night, but the sun came up before I finished it—oops, I guess it was an all-nighter! Fantastic read that details just about everything one needs to know about what it is like to participate in the Vendee Globe, the round-the-world, single-handed yacht race considered among the most gruelling competitions of all racing sports. If you want to get the sense of what it’s like to sail in the “Roaring 40s” this book is for you. And yes, it was so good that I have read it again during daylight hours.

Northern Lights

Desmond Holdridge

Good luck finding a copy of this book, as it’s been out of print for decades, though a limited edition of some hundred or so was published a few years ago on behalf of the widow of a member of the Cruising Club of America. Somehow a copy ended up in my hands, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this true story began literally across the harbour from my dock. In short, a young man looking for a last youthful adventure prior to settling down, buys a 30-foot sloop from a local Nova Scotia boat builder, and, with two other adventurers, sets sail with the intention of reaching the top of Labrador. Beautifully written, the tale details the hazards of such a journey, along with the day-to-day difficulties of undertaking such a voyage with the rudimentary gear, supplies and limited nautical knowledge of the crew. Three disparate personalities trapped on such a small space in sometimes dire circumstances plays a role in the tale, too. This book totally needs to be re-published.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Man Against the Sea

Sebastian Junger

Yeah, yeah, you probably saw the movie starring George Clooney. The book, which provides a detailed analysis of a massive storm system and its effects on a small New England-based swordfish longliner, puts the movie to shame. It was a up-half-the-night, one-sitting read the first time I read it, and equally enjoyable the second time.

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum

If you love the idea of casting off from your dock to leave your life as you know it for an extended voyage of life at sea while you explore the world, then why haven’t you read this classic book about the first person to sail around the world solo?

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Arthur Herman

If you love nautical history, along with history in general, this tome perfectly describes how Britain’s Royal Navy helped England become a world power and shape the world as we know it today. Another hard-to-put-down read, it pretty much consists of one-seafaring tale after another, combined with insights on how each of the localized incidents at sea reverberated across the oceans to affect the course of other interactions by man and governments.

As I’ve only read this one once, I think I just found my pick. However, my bookshelves are filled with dozens of other great seafaring reads. Guess I’m going to have to revisit this topic in a future blog. Until then, just grab any of the above books—trust me, you’ll feel like you’re on the water.

—Originally published April 13 by Slidemoor

Leaked Report Highlights Problems With Recently Built Condos

Leaked Report Highlights Problems With Recently Built Condos

–November 4, 2015

The CBC this morning reported on a leaked Nova Scotia government report that cites widespread workmanship problems with numerous condominiums built in the province during the past 10 years. The government study, which examined 42 condo buildings, found that 79 percent of the buildings experienced at least one defect from the original construction, and that defects have caused individual unit owners in those buildings an average of up to $20,000 to repair. The report, which reportedly called some developers “unscrupulous,” also pointed to a noticeable lack of any accountability process that would force builders to rectify discovered defects.

Condo Nova strives to know everything about condominium buildings in the Halifax region, and works to steer its clients away from buildings with known or rumored problems. Condo Nova also supports enactment of a province-wide mandatory multi-year warranty for the protection of new condo owners.

The study was conducted in 2013 for the former NDP Service Nova Scotia minister, John MacDonell, who was responsible for Nova Scotia’s Condominium Act. It is unclear why the report’s findings were never released or otherwise utilized by the government.

While the report does not name developers or the condominium corporations now responsible for the 42 surveyed buildings, it clearly suggests that some developments were plagued with poor workmanship and calls into question the lack of government oversight, in relation to both inspections of new buildings and protection of new condominium owners.

Among the more egregious findings in the report, according to the CBC was a row house-style condo building in Halifax in which balconies had not been properly affixed and could be pulled away from the building by hand. In another building the fireplace flues were installed with flammable materials and many units were subjected to rainwater leakage. Stove and dishwasher outlets were installed without proper junction boxes in another building, which almost caused a fire when a dishwasher leaked and caused a short circuit.

The report cited a lack of coordination between project managers, supervisors, subcontractors and labourers as being problematic, and noted that there “is evidence that unskilled and perhaps unlicensed personnel are performing critical installations even where the law requires licensed personnel.”

Along with 33 of the 42 buildings surveyed experiencing some kind of defect:

  • 29 (69 percent) were subject to varying degrees of premature building envelope failure, with seven of these subject to a near-total building envelope failure.
  • 15 (46 percent) experienced premature electrical, heating, ventilation or plumbing system failures.
  • seven were subject to latent defects in their structural components and/or fire safety.
  • And, 15 (36 percent) suffered from multiple defects among those mentioned above.

The report noted that while two developers agreed to alleviate problems when they were brought to their attention, many others did not. Condo corporation efforts to sue some of these other developers failed because the builders had already shut down their businesses. The majority of condo corporations did not seek legal action against the developers due to prohibitive costs.

The CBC story and radio broadcast on the report can be found here: Nova Scotia condos hurt by widespread workmanship woes: leaked report. Condo Nova has not been able to access the complete report.

—Originally published in Nov. 4, 2015